On the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the activist, orator and the man once referred to in eulogy by the late Ossie Davis as “Our Shining Black Prince,” El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (most commonly known as Malcolm X), I quite foolishly decide to wade into that whole X-Men analogy thingy. Of course I’ve been warned. Of course I know better. But since when has that stopped me? So then, let’s do this thing.
Much of the mental imagery we conjure of the non-Western world in the past century come from endless photos–often of varied peoples in fantastic headdress, wrapped in “exotic” clothing and striking regal poses. For artists, creators and those looking for “authenticity” or understandings of cultures and peoples seemingly “lost in time,” these images are invaluable. But how authentic are such glimpses of the past? Especially when constructed through a colonial lens? Can photos…lie?
A minor kerfuffle on race and representation was kicked up following last Sunday’s season finale of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Most noticeably, the barely restrained tilt towards Orientalism and the “great white emancipator” finally crossed the red line with the episode “Mhysa.” By week’s end, more than a few articles appeared in criticism, most noticeably comedian Aamer Rahman who pointed out why the Khaleesi’s entire storyline has been “messed up” from the jump. The reactions to this were typical: Denials. Charges of political correctness run amok. And of course, lots’ o’ geek-splainin’. But anyone barely acquainted with modern fantasy literature knows that from black-veiled Haradrim to the Ever Victorious Seanchan to the slavers of Yunkai, the genre has had a long love affair with exotic and dangerous “others.”
HBO’s Game of Thrones has been hailed for its prominent portrayal of strong women. From Westeros to Essos, the women of GOT are strong, confident, heroines, fighters and even villains. The one thing they aren’t however, is very diverse.
When, long ago, the gods created Earth
In Jove’s fair image Man was shaped at birth.
The beasts for lesser parts were next designed;
Yet were they too remote from humankind.
To fill the gap, and join the rest to Man,
Th’Olympian host conceiv’d a clever plan.
A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure,
Filled it with vice, and called the thing a Nigger.
–H.P. Lovecraft, On the Creation of Niggers (1912)
The recent use of earrings fashioned in the images of exotic black women by Dolce and Gabbana during a fashion show has caused understandable controversy. Critics charge the imagery is too reminiscent to slave-era derived caricatures of blacks, like Mammy or Little Sambo. D&G has denied racism is at play, and instead point to a history of black-a-moor decorative art on the Italian peninsula dating back to the medieval era, where blacks were numbered among the Arab-Berber armies that invaded Sicily in the 10th century. The truth may lie somewhere between the two claims. While black-a-moor decorative art indeed predates slavery and black caricatures like Mammy, their history is rooted in the European imagination–and come with inherent contradictions. As shown in a previous post, in medieval European stories and legends, black-a-moors appear as threatening figures associated with the Muslim world. But, as I discuss here, they could also take the guise of benevolent allies. Over time, these varied depictions would meld with the coming era of African slavery, where skin color became increasingly tied to servitude and bondage.
“Nor do I feel responsible for the generally low state of the Negro—as one Negro friend pointed out to me; the lucky Negroes were the ones who were enslaved. Having traveled quite a bit in Africa, I know what she means. One thing is clear: Whether one speaks of technology or social institutions, “civilization” was invented by us, not by the Negroes. As races, as cultures, we are five thousand years, about, ahead of them. Except for the culture, both institutions and technology, that they got from us, they would still be in the stone age, along with its slavery, cannibalism, tyranny, and utter lack of the concept we call “justice.”–Robert Heinlein
Well at least he didn’t use the n-word…